Empathetic Design


I just recently happened to catch this video and its accompanying article on the Steelcase website. The video is a 60 Minutes piece on three things that I really like: Steelcase, IDEO (and David Kelley), and Steve Jobs.

It’s worth a view. The Node chair is a pretty great design for classrooms. I test drove one a few months back and was immediately impressed by how comfortable it was. In fact, everything about it screamed “we thought through all of this.” From the way the desk swivels out of the way, to the quality of the materials and the way the back flexes under the right pressure.

Steelcase makes my favorite desk chair and I’ve loved their products for a long time. But this was the first time I had a look into the design behind their products and the first time I realized they used outside firms to help with the design of their products. But I digress.

David Kelley said one thing in the video that really stuck with me. He used the term “empathetic design” to talk about their approach to products and I really liked that.

A few years ago, I wrote an article called “Accessibility to the Face” about the challenges of design thinking with regard to people with disabilities. In the article I made the case that “accessibility” isn’t the point. The point is understanding the customer/user/person who will be using your service or product. Stepping into their shoes, so to speak.

I love David’s term for this because it totally boils this whole way of thinking into a single concept.

It’s not about accessibility, or usability or even “user experience.” I mean, it is eventually, but to really get at the heart of what makes a great experience or product, you have to first empathize with the person who uses it.

I realize this isn’t a new concept. Many people have written about having empathy for the user, but I rarely hear that term. It was good to have a reminder of it and a great way to describe how to talk about design thinking.